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Written by Donald A. Promnitz
Olga Bowles is doing well, now — but five years ago, she was stuck in a housing limbo.
After 20 years in the retail business, she found herself living with her son and his family. It was, according to her, a trying experience.
“I had to go through this phase where my son was always telling me: ‘This is my house! I can do what I want!’ I hated that,” Bowles said. “I had a room for myself and I did not associate with them, basically.”
Bowles applied for two different homes and after a year of being waitlisted, she finally got into the Fresno Silvercrest Residence, an affordable housing apartment complex run by the Salvation Army.
Gary Kleinhammer knows firsthand how this issue has affected seniors in the Central Valley and elsewhere in California. As the property manager for Silvercrest, he’s watched as the rising cost of living has driven blue-collar retirees to seek affordable housing they never anticipated needing. In fact, of the 165 people living at his facility, all but one of them has been surviving on an income of less than $10,000 a year. And just like with Bowles, Kleinhammer said the average amount of time on the waitlist is a year.
“I’ve done interviews with lots of applicants that just don’t want to live with their families anymore… but they can’t afford to rent an apartment,” Kleinhammer said. “And I’ve heard war stories — they’re sleeping in someone’s garage, they’re trying to spend their whole check just on rent and can’t afford to buy groceries. It’s just very sad.”
These stories also find their way to Salvation Army Maj. Ken Hood, who serves with his wife Debbie (also a major) as a chaplain for Silvercrest. As a past manager, he’s on the referral list for several places and gets about three emails a week from desperate seniors looking for an affordable home.
“I just had one where the person has lived in a house for 20 years, but the owner sold to somebody else. She had to move out — she and her friend have no idea where they’re going to go,” Hood said. “And your heart goes out to them, but there’s only so many apartments.”
However, Bowles’ story — and the encounters experienced by Kleinhammer and the Hoods — is a growing norm throughout California. There’s been a tremendous spike in the need for affordable housing in California as the cost of living in the state continues to rise and one of the hardest-hit demographics are seniors.
Higher taxes and regulations have caused the cost of operations to rise in many retirement communities. This in turn is passed down to the seniors and their families. Meanwhile, homes they’ve lived in (often for decades) have experienced hikes in rent that force them to live elsewhere. This is especially a problem for those on a fixed income. Those without a retirement plan in place are becoming less and less able to depend on their monthly Social Security benefits, which are often almost completely depleted by the cost of rent.
For example, RENTCafé, an online listing service, found the cheapest neighborhoods in Fresno had an average monthly rent of $858, which doesn’t included the cost of expenses as gas and groceries.
The issue has led a high increase in demand for affordable housing. However, supplying this demand has become quite difficult. Seniors applying now can often expect to be waitlisted for years.
At Twilight Haven, an affordable senior apartment facility in Southeast Fresno, Admissions Director Lisa Kooiman has been on the receiving end of the high demand. Currently, there are only three people on her waiting list, but she has only been working there for a year. Before her arrival, she added that there was no waitlist and the facility was never at full occupancy.
To make matters more complicated, Kooiman says that two of the people on her waitlist are currently homeless.
“Their situation had been that they were staying with family, and the family, unfortunately, was trying to financially take advantage of them… and not leave them with anything,” Kooiman said. “And so they left that situation with family members and are unfortunately having to stay at a homeless shelter because they can’t find anything else their income will take care of.”
One Twilight Haven occupant to get in before the influx was Esther Palacios from Selma. She came in around the same time as Kooiman, when her home became too much for her to handle in terms of size and cost. Before Twilight Haven, she applied to several other areas, but — like so many others in her situation — was waitlisted.
“I had a list of them,” Palacios said. “And then I went to the Yellow Pages in the phonebook, but everybody I called, it was about a year or more of waiting. And I needed to get out of where I was staying because my rent was too high.”
Solutions are being looked at look at by those in the senior housing community and by those in assisted living. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order mandating an aging plan for California seniors. In October, a community meeting was held in Clovis to strategize a plan for care for the elderly in the Central Valley, with housing being one of the main topics of discussion.
In the meantime, the Central Valley — much like the rest of California — will remain in a race against time to find a solution.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on how the housing crisis is affecting seniors.